On the phone on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) was politely emphatic: "We've never been here before." And again: "We've never been here before."
"Here," in DeMint's parlance, was the nation's exceedingly precarious fiscal condition, exacerbated by a fast-approaching political tipping point as well; together they indicate that "the 2012 election will be a make-or-break moment for America." That last quote is from DeMint's new book, released this week, called Now or Never: Saving American From Economic Collapse. In an extended interview on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart this week, Stewart complained to DeMint that the book contained too much "apocalyptic" rhetoric, and that people like him on the left side of the spectrum would be too turned off by such rhetoric to consider the book's substance.
To which, DeMint basically told me that he didn't mean to be apocalyptic -- just accurate.
"The whole point of the book," he said, "is to help create a sense of urgency, but in a way that calmly and rationally goes through the facts of where we are and why we're here. The key statistics, about the debt relative to the size of our economy and relative to the projected size of our economy in the future, are alarming." With the debt of $15 trillion now equaling the size of the entire economy, he said, he looks at it like a businessman looking at his balance sheet and realizing that "our short-term debt is as large as our annual sales, plus you have to borrow even more money every day just to keep the lights on." Such a situation, he writes in Now or Never, is "demonstrably unsustainable," and it is "insane."
I haven't had time to read the whole book, but I've read every word of about 50 pages and skimmed much of the rest. It's well worth the time.
He writes that we have:
… weakened an American culture once renowned throughout the world for its spirit of independence, rugged individualism, strong work ethic, commitment to family, and moral dignity. For example, for decades the federal government has encouraged unwed births, a major cause of poverty, school dropouts, drug use, juvenile delinquency, and incarceration. Forty percent of American children, including 70 percent of African-Americans, are now born out of wedlock. Rather than encouraging independence and personal responsibility, our government continues to encourage irresponsible and destructive behavior while expanding welfare and entitlement programs that force millions of Americans into dependency on taxpayer-funded programs. Some politicians have suggested that social issues be set aside while we address our fiscal crisis, but this view belies the real root causes of the nation's reckless spending and crushing debt. Cultural pathologies caused by the unintended consequences of naïve social policies have contributed to many of America's economic and fiscal problems. The economic crisis was caused by too much government. The same is true of many of our social crises, where the solutions must also mean getting away from government interference and largesse.
Completely aside from the fact that he sounds exactly like Rick Santorum in several of the presidential debates, DeMint is onto something here. In our phone interview, he made a point of noting that we still have time to turn things around economically, but only a small window of time before the debt is too onerous to overcome -- and that only a small political window is open as well. Using very rough numbers for illustration, he said: "Nearly 20 percent of Americans are working for governments at one level or another; another 20 percent are largely dependent on Social Security and Medicare; and another 10 percent are on some means-tested welfare program and completely dependent on government for their daily bread -- and many of these groups are fairly well organized politically, so getting them to vote for less government is increasingly difficult."
With basically half the country being net receivers of government largesse rather than net donors, it will take only a small additional push for the left to create a virtually permanent majority in favor of higher taxes and higher spending ad infinitum, world without end, Amen.
All of which makes 2012 perhaps the last chance to turn things around.
Toward that end, by the way, DeMint's "Senate Conservatives Fund" is busily assessing candidates hoping to lead a Republican takeover of the Senate. (So far it has endorsed four -- Mark Neumann in Wisconsin, Don Stenberg in Nebraska, Ted Cruz in Texas, and Josh Mandel in Ohio -- but that is beside the point of this column.) For all the attention to the presidential race, DeMint believes that a Republican takeover of the Senate, and a conservative majority within the GOP caucus there, are both eminently achievable and necessary for the country's future.
"We need five or six more folks like [freshman senators] Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Pat Toomey, folks who will take a stand," he said.
For that to happen, and for America to pull back from the cliff, DeMint writes in the last section of his book, individual American citizens absolutely must get more involved in the often "messy and unpleasant," but also necessary and rewarding, realm of politics. "There are hundreds of small things you can do," he writes, "that will make a big difference."
DeMint is, of course, not just politically to the right, but he's also right on target.
"We're a bottom-up country," he told me. "We're capable of a lot of self-governance. We can do this."